04.09.09

'Awful Middle-Class Queens'

That’s what out-of-the-closet actor Rupert Everett called other gay men who want to get married and adopt children. Kevin Sessums talks to Larry Kramer, ACT UP founder Peter Staley, and comedienne Kate Clinton about how they feel about that.

That’s what out-of-the-closet actor Rupert Everett called other gay men who want to get married and adopt children. Kevin Sessums talks to Larry Kramer, founding member of ACT-UP Peter Staley, and comedienne Kate Clinton about how they feel about that.

Rupert Everett has perfect timing in his portrayal of Charles Condomine in the current Broadway revival of Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit. But his own timing was a bit off last week when I interviewed him for The Daily Beast. Just as the dapper Brit was dismissing the whole idea of gay marriage, America—at least the parts of it that contain the states of Iowa and Vermont—was about to be swept with what is becoming its weekly dose of social change. It made Everett’s limpid opinions rather quaint.

“Gay politics? What gay politics? I don’t see any gay politics. I see a few lazy, torpid, unimaginative—certainly passionless—‘organizations’ that maintain they fight for us when what they do is relatively useless.”

“Marriage and babies?” he thundered at me over his grilled artichokes while we were eating a pre-theatre dinner. “Please. I want to be illegal. I want to live outside the mainstream. These awful middle-class queens—which is what the gay movement has become—are so tiresome. It’s all Abercrombie & Fitch and strollers. Everybody has the right to do what they want to do, but still...”

He paused—artfully peeled an artichoke—then pounced once more. “And I think this surrogacy thing is crap. It is utterly hideous. I think it’s egocentric and vain. These endless IVF treatments people go through. I mean, if you are meant to have babies, then great. But this whole idea of two gay guys filling a cocktail shaker with their sperm and impregnating some grim lesbian and then it gets cut out is just really weird. If I did have the impulse to be a parent, I would adopt—or foster. But this whole thing of forcing the idea of parenthood and marriage on us gay men is so bogus.”

Dear Rupert, I wanted to warn him, you better be careful or your nickname in certain younger gay circles may become Auntie Diluvian. Everett is about to turn 50, but age is not the barometer for political passion. Peter Staley, approaching 50 himself, was one of the founding members of ACT-UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) back in the 1980s and led a demonstration that shut down the New York Stock Exchange. He went on to found TAG (Treatment Action Guerillas, which morphed into Treatment Action Group) as well as the Web site AIDSmeds.com. He even spearheaded building the gigantic condom that he and fellow activist wrapped around Jesse Helms' house in 1991, in an homage to a Greenpeace action. In a recent blog entry on AIDSmeds.com, he finally revealed that it was David Geffen who funded that bit of guerilla theatre.

“I couldn’t have given a shit about gay marriage,” Staley, an old boyfriend, tells me. “But it was our opponents who made this an issue. Our national gay organizations sure didn’t want to get involved in it. It all started on the local level in Massachusetts with a few couples insisting to be treated equally—and I don’t think any of them were wearing Abercrombie & Fitch. It was 20 years ago when Andrew Sullivan wrote the first cover story on gay marriage for The New Republic. But it was only after the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruling that the right-wing became so enraged. My own blood started to boil when they started questioning my worthiness as a person. Their whole argument is that I am less than they are. What did they expect? Of course, we were going to fight back. We’ve won this in a generational sense.”

“Gay marriage will be the norm one day. Look at Nate Silver’s statistics on his 538 Web site. I’m quite impressed too with how our victory was won in Vermont. It was all very Obama-esque. The win there repudiated the ACT UP model. It was all about grassroots organizing. But just because I’ve called their tactics Obama-esque doesn’t mean I think we should be patient with Obama himself. If he doesn’t come out for gay marriage by the campaign in 2012, then we should be demonstrating full-force at all his rallies.”

Yet isn’t this all a kind of gay-rights Stockholm syndrome played out in political terms?

“The 30-year drumbeat of family values certainly caught our tribe in its thrall,” says comedienne and author Kate Clinton. “It’s no wonder that Mad Vow Disease is upon the land.” Is she surprised that marriage has become the premier gay-rights issue in the 21st century? “Honey, I would not have thought gays in the military would be the issue from the Clinton years. As the Madame Defarge of the movement, I’ve learned I don’t get to choose. If I could, I would choose antiviolence as the premier issue and start an LGBT party called The Good Life Party. You would think that the right-wing would catch on. If you want to stop gay sex, let gay people get married. I’ve always felt our one goal should be to make every left-handed, single, senior African-American woman healthy, happy, and safe. And that alone would mean that a lot of systems were in place.”

Rupert Everett. An old boyfriend. Noel Coward. Madame Defarge. There’s only one name missing here—the Moses of the gay-rights movement, Larry Kramer. Also a screenwriter ( Women in Love), novelist ( Faggots) and playwright ( The Normal Heart and The Destiny of Me), Kramer has often been likened to an Old Testament prophet. So I’ll just let him prophesy from his apartment overlooking the arch in New York's Washington Square, where he is busy working on his life’s opus, a book that traces all of American history and in which he claims to have unearthed irrefutable proof that George Washington himself was gay.

“I don’t think we are going to win anything federal—which is really the only important place where it counts—until a few of these Supreme Court justices expire (including that homophobe Anthony Scalia) and Obama replaces them with people sympathetic to our side,” he says. “This, of course, is by no means a sure thing. I have high hopes for Obama, but I do not feel all warm and fuzzy that he is going to be enough of a friend when push comes to shove. I hope I am wrong. I have never believed in patience, but I do not see that we have either the leaders or the troops enough—a la ACT UP—to go out there and fight. We continue to be a passive population. It drives me nuts. It has always driven me nuts. I do not think the gay population has been all that rabid for gay marriage. Note that I do not use the words ‘gay community.’ Expunge that expression from your vocabulary. We are not a community. There are too many of us to qualify for that word, which connotes something much smaller and more intimate than the huge multipeopled grab bag of our rainbow coalition.”

He goes on: “The work, as it was done for AIDS, has been done by relatively few warriors. And we are losing sight of the HIV/AIDS battle. What is not being done about HIV/AIDS in the United States is shocking. It is more than shocking. It is tragic. Three percent of the entire population of Washington, D.C., is infected. One in ten of its residents between the ages of 40 and 49 is infected. Seven percent of its male African-American population is infected. Gay politics? What gay politics? I don’t see any gay politics. I see a few lazy, torpid, unimaginative—certainly passionless—‘organizations’ that maintain they fight for us when what they do is relatively useless. It has never been otherwise. I am afraid we have never ever had a decent gay organization, outside of ACT UP, that accomplished what we need to accomplish—which is to free ourselves from the tyranny of THEM!”

Kramer calms down and a gentleness overtakes him when talking about his partner of many years. “David [Webster] does not want to get married and I don’t either until we get something tangible for good, otherwise all these goings-on now amount to a piece of paper—of sentimental value to be sure.”

And Noel Coward? He had an opinion, of a sort. “I have sometimes thought of marriage,” he said back in 1956. “But then I thought again.”

Kevin Sessums is the author of the New York Times bestseller Mississippi Sissy, a memoir of his childhood. He was executive editor of Andy Warhol's Interview magazine and a contributing editor of Vanity Fair and Allure. He is a contributing editor of Parade. His new memoir, I Left It on Mountain, will be published by St. Martin's Press.